Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City staff forgets its place

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A simple request by a member of the city's government -- Coun. Harvey Smith -- for information about a city contractor has revived many of the old ghosts and demons at city hall. As in the past, there's a gulf between the city's administration and its political leaders, a them-and-us attitude tainted by mistrust.

Coun. Smith, who has since been joined by other councillors, is demanding to know the value of fines levied against Emterra, the city's garbage and recycling collector.

As a member of government, he is entitled to the information, much the way a cabinet minister is entitled to have his or her questions answered by the provincial bureaucracy. It wouldn't occur to a provincial official to deny information to cabinet or any of its members, unless expressly ordered by the premier.

The administration at city hall, however, has forgotten -- as it has many times in the past -- that city councillors are all members of the civic government. That's one of the reasons why municipal conflict law is tougher on councillors than the equivalent legislation is on members of the legislative assembly.

The legislature is not a gallery of equals -- opposition parties have little power beyond the bully pulpit -- but city council's members, including the mayor, each have one vote and (normally) access to confidential and sensitive information.

Some civic administrators, however, have been territorial about their duties and resentful of what they consider unwarranted intrusions by mayors and councillors.

The problem got so bad that former mayor Susan Thompson dismissed the old board of commissioners -- the city's most senior officials -- in 1995 and replaced it with a chief administrative officer, believing the new system would be more responsive to councillors, who moved from part-time to full-time positions.

The idea was that politicians, not administrators, should direct policy, but staff remained protective of their turf and of their right to turn policies into programs without improper interference from elected officials.

The city said it was keeping Mr. Smith in the dark because the contract with Emterra does not expressly permit the release of information on fines and penalties, but the argument is highly specious. Lawyers could undoubtedly tie up the matter in the courts for years -- that's assuming Emterra even objects to releasing the information -- but some lawyers believe there is no legal basis for withholding the information from the public.

There is no justification, however, for denying it to the elected government.

If the administration -- which is not the government -- cannot do the right thing, then council should force the issue by tabling a resolution at its next meeting.

The real concern of the bureaucracy is that some city councillors are blabber-mouths and that the information will end up in the hands of the media, and the public. That, however, is not their concern and it should not inform the way they manage or mismanage information for elected officials.

The risk that allegedly confidential information might end up in the hands of taxpayers has rarely turned out to be a disaster for anyone, except to those who like to keep secrets or withhold information simply because they can.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2013 A10

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